Reason #4- the church has a simplistic and judgmental attitude towards sexuality
Sex. Yes, I just said sex on the church blog. I don’t need to go into a whole lot of detail to make the point that our culture’s view of sexuality has changed pretty drastically over the last few decades. Or rather, I should say views plural, rather than view singular. We no longer live in a world where it is as simple as saying, “don’t have sex until you are married.” This isn’t to say that as the church we don’t need to have a well-thought out ethic of sexuality, but it cannot be reduced to something as inadequate or un-nuanced as just don’t have it before marriage because that is how God wants it and you had better listen to him (or else).
There are so many more pieces that need to be a part of the conversation, and so often the church is just not willing to go there. So often, as a whole, we tend reduce the conversation around sex to “sex outside of marriage is bad” and “homosexuality is bad.” Yes, we live in a much more permissive culture, and I am not saying that the church needs to be permissive of hurtful or damaging sexual behaviors. What I am saying is that the church needs to be able to talk honestly and openly about issues that people are facing.
When a youth or a young person comes to me and tells me he or she is considering any type of sexual activity or has participated in sexual activity with someone else, I actually feel honored that they would trust that information to me as their pastor. We then proceed to have an actual conversation, where I can listen to their reasons, their motives, and the underlying issues. The most common reasons I hear for engaging in sexual activity from them is that they are afraid of being rejected or that they need validation or affirmation from another human being. They need to feel needed or loved. Does simply saying, “God doesn’t want you to have sex before you are married” actually do anything to solve those underlying issues? The conversation has to go further and seriously engage the issues at hand, which almost always tend to go much deeper than sex alone.
I know that right now homosexuality is a hot-button topic all over the church. When I was still a part of the Episcopal Church during seminary, it was an issue that was literally dividing the denomination. Churches and dioceses were leaving The Episcopal Church to go under foreign episcopal oversight because they did not want to be a part of a denomination that allowed people who were homosexual to be ordained. It is going to be one of the most pressing and polarizing issues that the United Methodist Church will deal with at General Conference this year, and I fear for the unity and witness of our denomination through that time. Part of the struggle is that so often, conversation is not willing to be had. People are so convinced that they are right or possess the only possible truth. Homosexuality is a complex issue. It is an ethical issue. It is a scientific issue. It is a biblical issue. Many people just say homosexuals are bad without even knowing (or realizing that they know) anyone who is gay. Many have preconceived notions that all gay people are promiscuous, unethical people who can’t control their passions. That categorical assumption not only hurts people, but it also hurts the witness of the church. Regardless of what your views are regarding homosexuality, it hurts the church when Christians lump all gay people into one moral (or immoral) category or when it pronounces the sin of homosexuality as the greatest of sins. (A side note: Ezekiel 16 points out that Sodom was not destroyed because of the often-cited sin of homosexuality. It was destroyed because the people were arrogant, overfed and gluttonous, while they failed to care for the poor and needy.) I have had more than one gay friend who has been closeted while trying to stay a part of the church, but when they came out because they couldn’t keep the struggle internal anymore, they felt that the church was the last place that they could be. They felt that the church was not a safe or welcoming place as they worked through the things that they were feeling or experiencing. Consequently, because the church did not feel like a safe place to work through their own sexual identity, they have ended up very far from God, and that breaks my heart. Is that really what God wants for his children, gay or not? Is that really what God wants for his church? We can’t be afraid of having conversations that don’t always offer clear-cut answers. We can’t be afraid of questioning and searching together for a way to navigate the cloudy waters of human sexuality.
And what about pornography? That is such a huge issue these days with such easy access on the internet. Again, the church needs to be able to do more than say, “it’s bad, don’t watch it or look at it.” How does it destroy relationships? What damage is being done to those who are a part of the pornography industry? How does it distort the reality that all people are human beings, created in the image of God? We need to have the conversations about the “whys” not just the “do or do nots”.
And then there is sex within marriage. How are we talking about what a healthy sexual relationship is? Just because two people are married does not mean that their sexual relationship is healthy. How are power dynamics figuring in to the relationship? Is there emotional or sexual manipulation? Is there with-holding or force? How does sex function in a marriage to uphold the covenant made between the two who have made it? It’s not just about not having sex outside of marriage, it’s about what sex is inside a marriage as well.
In the conversation of sexuality the church also needs to include conversation about how we view our own bodies and the bodies of those around us. How do we value and cherish that which God has made? How do we honor our bodies and those of our fellow human beings?
I could write pages and pages on the endless issues surrounding sexuality, but you probably get the point by now. Sex is such a complex issue and it requires a nuanced, thoughtful, and dynamic approach from Christians. It requires conversation, honesty, and continual theological reflection. If we can begin to have conversations rather than monologues, we may find that we will better be able to navigate and engage our younger generations who are themselves experiencing the complexity, the hurts, and the joys of the gift of human sexuality.